HEADING BACK TO NEW ORLEANS
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ikuko Sano relocated back to Honolulu at the end of September after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her apartment in Metairie, La. Sano is pictured with the last of her belongings in a suitcase and a picture of the hurricane's destruction at her friend's home in Louisiana on the desktop of her computer screen.
Hard time giving up on the Big Easy
Five months ago, Liz Clendenin would have never described New Orleans as a ghost town, but those are the only words that come to her mind now.
As a student at Loyola University in New Orleans, Clendenin, of Nuuanu, called the city her home for the past two years.
Thousands of students are going back to New Orleans this week after fleeing from Hurricane Katrina last August as they were settling in for the fall semester. Some university campuses that closed last semester will resume classes this week.
A majority of the two dozen students displaced from the hurricane who came to Hawaii for the semester enjoyed their stay but opted to go back to New Orleans. Many have already left, anxious to return and help rebuild the disaster-ridden city.
"This is the city I grew up in," said Aimee Scheuermann, a first-year law student at Tulane University who worked in a Hawaii law firm in the fall. "I chose Tulane for certain reasons, and those haven't changed because of the storm."
University of Hawaii enrolled five students, while Hawaii Pacific University took in six. All of them are returning to their schools.
Eighteen law students from New Orleans schools came to Hawaii and received internships and free housing, largely thanks to the help of a local attorney, Andy Winer. Three of them decided to stay in Hawaii.
"I have nothing left to go back to in New Orleans," said Ikuko Sano, 28, a Kaimuki High School graduate who practiced law in Louisiana. "I grew up in Hawaii. I feel like I'm back home."
Clendenin was itching to go back to New Orleans to reunite with her friends and be on her own again.
Her mother, Jeanne, went with her just like the first time she dropped Liz off at school as a freshman.
Jeanne Clendenin said leaving her daughter this time will be harder than the first.
Thoughts of any concerned mother keep running through her mind: Will her daughter be safe? What about next year's hurricane season? How is the university going to take care of all its students?
"I'll miss her a lot more than I would otherwise," said Clendenin, 47. "I know I'll be calling more often. There's a little anxiety about next August and September, when hurricane season comes back, but I'm not going to think that far ahead yet."
Having its students return is critical for New Orleans universities. Administrators have been going around the nation, recruiting their students back.
Tulane University, the largest in New Orleans, needs $200 million in recovery costs with a significant budget shortfall projected next year.
Loyola University expects 87 percent, or 2,743, of its undergraduate students to return. Dillard University expects half of its students and will offer housing to students at the Hilton Riverside Hotel.
Robert Moore enjoyed every day he was in Hawaii. He will remember the trips to the neighbor islands, surfing and snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, but it was time to go home, he said.
As a first-year law student at Tulane, he will be leaving with much more legal experience and a close group of friends.
"I had to come back sooner or later," said Moore, 22, who was rescued by a boat from his home after the hurricane. "I couldn't stay away forever. I know there's going to be a strong sense of unity among the whole class and campus."
The first year of law school comes with a disclaimer as the hardest one with the most work. Tulane law school will cram one year's worth of information into this spring semester by having six days of classes every week until June.
Rather than trying to adapt to a new life in New Orleans while balancing law school, Sarah Stevenson decided to stay in Hawaii until the end of the summer.
Stevenson said she will probably apply to other law schools in the Northeast for the fall semester.
"It's been a great experience in part because people were so helpful and generous," said Stevenson, 26, whose family lives in New Mexico. "And, I can look out the window and see the ocean."
Sano got a job with law firm Carlsmith Ball, which she said is a better opportunity than her career in New Orleans. She is sleeping on her friend's sofa and only has two suitcases worth of belongings from her home in New Orleans.
But she prefers to be here, where she feels at home with friends from high school.
She was born in Japan and has her law degree from there. Because of complications with her visa, she hopes there is some way she can take the bar exam in Hawaii to become a practicing lawyer.
"I want to be here permanently," said Sano, 28.
Scheuermann wants to be a part of New Orleans' rebirth. Mayor Ray Nagin has been calling back its citizens to help rebuild the city, and some outside companies have committed to funding the Mardi Gras celebrations.
Tulane law school has been telling its students that they could help the city by working at local law firms to educate people on their legal rights during this tumultuous time.
Liz Clendenin hopes things will become normal and routine again by helping the city any way she can.
Robert Moore and his mother bought another home in New Orleans, despite fears of possible hurricanes in the future.
Scheuermann said the students will be coming back with a new perspective. She hopes many others will see New Orleans as the same city and will help re-create its charm.
"It still feels like home," she said.